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Football
Spanish tapas versus British roast beef
The English Premier League takes on the Spanish Primera Division in the European Champions League final.
Last Modified: 27 May 2011 18:52
Saturday's clash should be a battle of the home-grown talent [AFP]

As much as the UEFA Champions League final will be a battle between the world's two dominant clubs, it's also an unofficial referendum on the quality of Spanish players compared to those from the British Isles.
 
Despite the influence of imported superstars like Lionel Messi and Javier Hernandez, the line-ups of both Barcelona and Manchester United are likely to be dominated by home-grown talent.
 
In the second legs of the semi-finals, Barca started with eight Spaniards compared to four from Real Madrid while seven British or Irish players featured at some point for United.

In contrast, both Chelsea and Arsenal enlisted the services of just three UK-born recruits in late season league matches against the Red Devils.

Fighting spirit
 
While Manchester United's squad might have lacked the brilliant individuals of previous seasons, the fighting spirit of their British backbone helped them become the Premier League's number-one team.

In the same way, Barca seemed like a celebration of all that's good about La Liga: possession, passing and style with substance.
 
"The qualities of Spanish and British players are so different and it all starts from the way they were introduced to the sport," said Martin Tierney, a Scottish coach who's worked in Spain as a scout for British clubs including Liverpool, Sunderland and Celtic.

"The Spanish game is focused on what to do in the final third of the field using technical ability and speed whereas coaching in the UK is more about not conceding goals."
 
If Pep Guardiola can repeat his 2009 victory over Sir Alex Ferguson, it will be yet another boost for La Liga.

Five of the past 14 winners of Europe's premier club competition have come from Spain compared to three from England. Yet the Premier League remains unrivalled as the world's most popular domestic championship.
 
"Quite simply, it is a myth that the EPL is better than La Liga," said Tierney, who works as an Asian TV commentator on both leagues.

"You can put the EPL's popularity down to the world-class marketing and wonderful worldwide TV coverage. But La Liga is number-one."

Higher quality
 
In the same week that unfashionable Blackpool and Birmingham dropped out of the Premier League, 2003 Champions League semi-finalists Deportivo La Coruna were relegated from Spain's Primera Division.

Depor, from the nation's north-west, were league champions in 2000 and won the King's Cup in 1995 and 2002.
 
"The lower teams of La Liga are much stronger than those in England because of the higher quality of squad players, with the influx of South Americans," said ex-Australia international Abbas Saad, now an Asia-based TV pundit.

"La Liga is definitely of a better technical standard."
 
In January, not a single soul from the Premier League was named in the FIFA FIFPro World XI while eight players from La Liga, including six Spaniards, were selected.

Over the past six years, only John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand made the elite.

The fact that two of them are defenders reinforces the stereotype about those who learn their trade in the British Isles.
 
"Apart from the fact that kids still play in the street with their friends in Spain, it can also be as simple as having better weather to enjoy their time on the ball that makes Spanish players technically stronger," Tierney said.

"Growing up in the UK, young players are trying to stay warm in training so everything tends to be done in a hurry.
 
"Professional academies in the UK are excellent but non-elite players are restricted because of weather and lack of access to good facilities. In Spain, local town councils offer great facilities and inexpensive coaching to families."

Widening gap 

Carles Puyol: The complete package [GALLO/GETTY]

During his time in Spain, Tierney witnessed La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) become both European and world champions despite a depressing economic recession.

England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and were eliminated in the quarter-finals at South Africa 2010.

Now a coach at his own football centre (www.soccerexperience.com) in the Malaysian beach resort of Penang, he believes the gap in class between the two nations continues to widen.
 
"British clubs have a lot more players with athletic strength who have became not bad footballers while in Spain you have to be the complete package," he said.

"Carles Puyol is a great athlete and a warrior for his team but he is also part of a slick backline that passes, passes, passes to start the attack."
 
It's an over-simplification to call the Champions League final a clash between the Artists and the Artisans, especially with dazzling imports like Nani and Antonio Valencia within the Man United ranks, plus the outstanding and technically under-rated British player in Wayne Rooney and the tactical wizardry of Sir Alex Ferguson.

But another Barca victory will undoubtedly delight those footballing purists of the non-Anglophile variety.

Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an Asia-based broadcaster of the English Premier League, corporate emcee and media trainer.

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